March 8, 2006 By Andy Opsahl
To redesign Access Washington, the state's Web site, Laura Parma, director of interactive technologies for the Washington Department of Information Services, scoured the brains of regular Washingtonians.
Citizens increasingly prefer using e-government rather than traveling to agency offices and waiting in line for service. Parma introduced a user-focused research method -- called a usability study -- to overhaul the Web site. States traditionally design their Web sites according to what their department staff and webmasters think, but experts taught Parma's team how to get usable feedback from regular citizens.
The team sat people in a traditional lab environment, over the course of a year, to observe them performing online government tasks such as renewing drivers' licenses, paying taxes or getting permits.
"We're hearing their thoughts, because we ask them to speak aloud about their experience, and we observe how their use really is -- where they struggle, where it's not clear, where terminology might be poor, what we think is intuitive versus what they think is intuitive," Parma said. "[A redesign is] all about what real users who use your Web site need and want in their experience."
Now Parma is conducting a usability study of the site's secure gateway, which users access from the main Web site to connect with the applications available for interacting with government -- one of her past projects.
The gateway joins applications developed and managed by several agencies into one delivery system, bringing them to the user's fingertips in one place. Once citizens or businesses enter a username and password, the gateway treats them like an Amazon.com customer, immediately knowing all about them from the "digital certificate" completed during registration. Now it's time to run that offshoot of the Web site through a usability test.
"We're going to apply those usability principles to everything we've got that lives out on the Web," Parma said.
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